In this spare novel set in 1991, Stoyo Petkanov, a deposed leader of a former Soviet satellite country, is on trial, charged with crimes against the people. At first, the prosecutor general, Peter Solinsky, himself a rehabilitated Communist, approaches the case with the enthusiastic conviction of the converted. But Petkanov, who was once on a first-name basis with despot Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, refuses to be intimidated. Instead, he attacks his accusers. Soon the prosecutor finds himself defending not only his new government but also his own less-than-pure political choices through the years.
Barnes blurs the line between the guilty and the innocent to offer a penetrating glimpse into the precarious nature of politics in the 20th-century Soviet Union. (He describes a dumping ground where discarded statues of Lenin, Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev—and now Petkanov—"are lined up against a high wall as if awaiting the firing squad.") While the country has a new face, its spirit is still crippled by power-hungry leaders and insecure followers. Yet even with a timely subject and abundant talent as a writer, Barnes, the author of A History of the World in l0½ Chapters, comes up with characters who an; nothing more than talking heads for ideas that are nothing new. Ultimately, The Porcupine's prickly, often didactic tone and simplistic good versus evil theme make it a difficult book to embrace. (Knopf, $17)